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Laurent did not turn his head.

“Took you long enough,” he said, blithely, bitterly. “Let me guess. You had to dissect it all without your father. No, you smoothed it out with Guion so he didn't take some strip of road back.”

“May I lie down?” Damen asked.

“You're the Crown Prince of Akielos. These are your apartments.”

“May I lie down?” Damen repeated.

“Suit yourself.”

Damen lowered himself onto the bed with as much distance from Laurent's curved back as he could allow without falling off the edge. The frame creaked. The mattress felt like it was filled with stones. “It's been a long night,” Damen said. “I am tired. I'm not quite sure if there are still several dead Veretians in my bedchamber.”

Laurent did not move. His hair was matted, slightly frizzy. His hands were fists in front of his chest. “Sleep, then,” he said. “You sleep easily, I know.” This was not an unusual set up for them – they often lay in the same space. They had been closer than this, too. But Damen felt a weight of unsureness pressing against his chest. He didn't know where to start. He felt like he should refrain from touching Laurent, then hated that he felt that way.

“Ah,” Laurent said.

“Ah?”

“You are changed inside. It was only a matter of time.”

“I have something to tell you,” Damen said.

“Let me guess. I'm good at guessing secrets. You're sending me back to my uncle. My viciousness has shocked you, or at least, that's what you're telling yourself.”

“That's not it.”

“Your father wishes to bargain with me now and you know you won't win the arguments after my cruel display in the hall.”

“No.” Damen wished he had the disposition to be soothing. Women could do that. Maybe if he had known a mother, he would have been able to learn. Laurent's skin was red and his lips were cracked. “It's about what we were talking about earlier,” he said. “You can have your slaves.”

Laurent froze, then whirled around. His hair really was quite a state. Damen might have smiled, in another circumstance. Laurent still had his fists clenched tight.

“Don't trick me,” Laurent said. “I – not you.”

“I don't trick you,” Damen said. “I was always going to do it.” Now, more than ever. He couldn't say why. He thought maybe Laurent needed it. It would maybe change things for him, and consequently for them. Laurent had been so young when he came here. Damen had spent so much time with him. He didn't want to be like....to be the one who shaped him when Laurent should be shaping himself.

If Laurent wanted a bedslave, who was Damen to prevent that? That's how it should be, really. Someone with no ulterior motive. Someone sweet, uncomplicated, young, unconnected. Someone without the power to take advantage.

“Even now?”

“Yes,” Damen said. Then because it felt too raw to look into Laurent's red-rimmed blue eyes, he glanced downwards at the crumpled sheet and saw a thin river of blood stream down Laurent's right wrist and onto the bed. Instinct trumped logic. He grabbed hold of Laurent's arm to check the source.

“Stop.” Laurent pulled away. Damen was stronger. He couldn't see the source of the blood. He couldn't let go until he knew Laurent was all right. But Laurent would not open his fist until Damen pried his blood-stuck fingers apart and there, against his palm was a red ruby pendant held so tightly it had sliced right into his skin. It had been around his neck when Auguste died.

He held it like Aimeric. Like Aimeric. There was no more hoping for Damen.

Damen pulled back then. Laurent turned the colour of the blood and he turned his back on Damen.

“Why didn't you tell me?” Damen asked. There. That was one of things that was niggled. “You could have told me.”

Over his bony, shaking shoulder Laurent gave Damen a look that would turn the warmest Akielon waters to ice. Damen had seen it before, back when he didn't see the poison, and Laurent had silently said why didn't you notice?

The signs were there. Damen had not let himself see them. He could not fathom the thought of such heinous actions - poison, assassins, abuse, neglect -- acted out between family members.

He had to fix this. He went to his knees behind where Laurent sat at the edge of the bed. “You don't...it's all right.”

“All right?” Laurent let out a hiss of a laugh. “All right? What part of this is all right?”

“I have been to see Aimeric,” Damen said.

“Wanted all the gory details to relay to your father?”

“Laurent.”

“I am,” Laurent ground out. “Nothing like Aimeric. You heard him. Poor deluded fool. I am not like that. Not now. Not since I was a --”

“A boy,” Damen said.

“Yes, I was a boy when my uncle took me to his bed. Does that sicken you?” He didn't give Damen room to answer. “My father's brother. Two second sons, misunderstood. You said it yourself, incest is abhorrent in every culture.”

“Laurent.”

“You must have guessed deep down. Everyone wants to fuck me and you always keep me at arm's length.”

“Laurent, stop!”

“Touched a nerve?”

Damen, if he was in capable of logic, would not have touched Laurent. He would have sat back on his heels and waited. But his mind was in a mist that could not be cleared. He thought it would never clear until he ran a sword through the Regent's heart. In the mist, he grabbed hold of Laurent. His shoulders were so slight beneath his hands – sweat-damp and trembling with exertion or exhaustion. He forced Laurent to look at him, because of the mist, when he should have gently climbed down from the bed and went to his knees and begged him to look.

“Fuck that,” Damen said. “Fuck all of that. Do you even hear yourself? You were a boy. You were a boy. He tried to kill you again tonight and you were just a boy.”

“I'm seventeen now.”

“Boys never know they're boys,” Damen said. “When I was thirteen I thought I was the best fuck in Ios. Trust me, I was not. When I was seventeen, I was leading armies --”

“Really? You never mentioned that before.”

“I lead them, because they were so well-trained and the battles were always going to be easily won,” Damen continued. “When I was nineteen, I thought Vere could be trusted. I am twenty-two, and I thought I couldn't be shocked.”

“It doesn't comfort me to think that I was manipulated. That my mind was so weak it could be bent like that,” Laurent said. “I have weighed all the option, believe me.”

“You are the most intelligent person I know.”

“You do live in Ios. The bar is not set high.”

“Laurent, I won't push you. Talk if you want. Say nothing if that's better. Just...don't punish yourself. And please, throw that ugly necklace in the sea.” Damen lay back down against Laurent's pillow. It was damp. There was saltiness in the back of Damen's throat like the spray of the sea and something else, nicer, that he could not let himself savour.

“That is my side,” Laurent said. Damen pushed over in the bed. “I am sure your men have removed those dead bodies.” Damen shrugged. Laurent put his feet back on the bed. Eventually, he lay down again with his back turned to Damen again. “Are you really not moving?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I prefer to stay,” Damen said.

-

Damen, who generally thought that men who lay in bed in the morning unless perhaps they were newly wed or in the company of a very fine companion were in the same category as cowards and thieves, stayed in Laurent's bed as the sun climbed to its highest point in the sky. He'd often skipped a night's sleep all together rather than waste a day. He slept a little. He wasn't sure if Laurent did. Once Damen had established he wasn't leaving Laurent took up the same straight, still pose he generally favoured in sleep. He never threw his limbs about or cuddled against his companion for warmth. Damen wondered if there was some tragic reason for that and then he wondered if his newfound knowledge of Laurent's past would now colour everything he saw in him. Damen didn't want to think like that.

“Are you awake?”

“I am now.” Laurent shifted on the mattress. Damen really did have the lumpy side. “I have been all along. Am I disturbing you? There's a perfectly silent room across the hall. You won't have to hear the yard there, either, and it's corpse free. I helped remove them last night, after I spoke with the guards. I didn't actually spent the entire night sobbing here.”

Damen sat up. “If you're awake, let's go down to the training arena. You fought well last night but you can be better. No more wooden swords.”

“Doesn't that go against the rules?”

“Fuck the rules. It wasn't Theomedes who suggested that aspect of your punishment. Get up. We're going to fight.”

-

Damen had never actually sparred with Laurent. He supposed it seemed wrong – rival princes fighting. Like he was conjuring up a vision that didn't need to happen for years yet. Also, he thought he might hurt the boy, when he was a boy.

“How old are you now?”

“You ask me that too frequently. You should see a physician,” Laurent replied. “You know I will be eighteen in a few months.”

Eighteen was an age where the Regent could send for Laurent to come home. Eighteen was an age where Laurent could pack up and go of his own volition.

“All right,” Damen said. He tossed Laurent a proper sword. Nothing too heavy. “Let's get to work.”

They started easily. Testing. Prodding. Warming up. Laurent had been practicing with wooden swords again for a while now. More than Damen knew.

“Who spars with you?”

“Jord, mostly. He's better than Lazar.”

“Have you seen him?”

“I think it better he doesn't see me,” Laurent said. “He requested leave. I denied it.”

“He's been here a long time,” Damen said.

“So have I.” Laurent pushed back. Real fighting. It was familiar because he'd trained under Nikandros here at the palace academy. It was familiar because Damen had once fought beside a very similar swordsman beside a stream in Delpha. It made sense. Laurent worshipped his brother. They probably had the same trainer, as Haemon had trained Damen and Kastor and Nikandros.

It was still a little shock to see Laurent, taller now, broader, wield a sword like his dead brother.

“You fight like Auguste,” Damen said, easily blocking a series of sharp thrusts.

“No. He was better at this stuff.”

“Stuff?”

“Being a future king,” Laurent said. “He never would have let...” Pausing his speech, Laurent unleashed a particularly fierce blow. Damen blocked it, but he felt it in his bones.

“You didn't let...”

“You don't know that.” Laurent stopped, again, this time to tie his hair back with a strip of leather.

“I told you it would get in the way,” Damen said. “And, please, don't say things like that.”

“It makes you uneasy? My heart bleeds.”

“It wasn't your fault.”

Laurent struck out with his sword. “I know that,” he said. “I know that.” The metal clashed. “But that doesn't stop the looks.”

“What looks?” Damen forced Laurent back towards the centre of the arena.

“Look, then. Auguste. At the stream. He...suspected.” Laurent's words were coming laboured now. He wasn't exerted, not really. He was fit. This was something else. Anger. Frustration.

“He would never look at you differently.”

“He did!” Laurent lashed out with his sword. “You saw.”

“Laurent,” Damen said. “That wasn't about you and you know it.”

“Someday, some second, you'll wear the same look.”

“If I do, it won't be about you.”

Laurent stood back, shifted positions. Damen didn't wait for him to get comfortable. He attacked. Laurent blocked him. Laurent held himself like a dancer and used balance instead of strength to fend Damen off. He shifted again, mimicked Damen's style, but of course he was not strong enough to defeat him that way. But he would be stronger than lots of other people. Just not Damen.

“I think,” Damen said. “I might learn from you.”

“Like an elephant doing ballet,” Lauren said, and shifted to some hybrid of the two styles – Veretian and Akielon, Auguste and Damen – and raised his sword again. He couldn't get Damen down. But he held his own.

“Can we --” Laurent began. “Again?”

“Tomorrow,” Damen said, wiping sweat from his face. At the edge of the ring, he could see one of his father's men come to fetch him. “See you tonight.”

-

“The Veretians are gone,” Theomedes said.

“Except one.”

“Yes. Real swords again, Damianos?”

“He was attacked last night. I would have had to disarm one of my own men for him if I didn't get the attackers down so quickly.”

“For a Veretian? And you were always going to get the attackers down so quickly. They've been disposed of, by the way.”

“I know. I'm sorry. I should have done it.”

“No. Your men did it,” Theomedes said. “Remember. You lead. They follow.” Now that the pointless diplomatic mission was complete, palace business returned to normal. Already local officials were assembling eager to meet with the King. Damen heard them gather. He looked down at his father's desk where there was still a detailed map of the entire land spread open.

Damen kept looking at it. The border. Those rivers, hills and fields that now seemed like markers of the human body and the human mind. Homes and livelihoods and points of pride.
“I think,” Damen said. “We should go to war.”

“You do,” said Theomedes. “I've been aware of that for a while.”

“Today I think it more than ever.”

“What has changed?”

Damen inhaled and exhaled. Everything and nothing had changed. He could tell his father about the Regent and his father would hate him too. It was enough to remove him from his role. Not enough to go to war. And not what Laurent wanted.

“They took something they had no right to.” Damen pointed at Delpha.

But he did not care about the lands. He cared about what happened at Marlas.

More than that, he cared about what had happened before he had ever met Laurent or given him a second thought. Laurent, the clever boy who adored his brother. Laurent, who had been twisted and abused for someone else's vile desires. Aimeric, who could have been killed here if Laurent had not saw clearly enough to hurt him instead.

Himself, who would never know what would have happened if there had been no assassins and Laurent hadn't bid Lykaios to scream.

Damen, more than anything in the world, more than he wanted to see what it would be like to feel Laurent's lips against his, wanted to kill the Regent. If Aleron and Auguste could fall during a war with Akielos, he saw no reason why he couldn't cut the rotten Regent down.

-
Damen went back to the slave quarters. First, to check on Lykaios who was awake and mortified. Her hair, it seemed, was the source of her embarrassment. Damen was gently reassuring. She was still beautiful. She had done nothing wrong. Kindly, he leaned close enough to take her hand. He had every part of her body before. She knew he would never harm her. But she flinched and Damen saw that it was the steel of his sword so close to her body that had altered her usual perfect submission.

Lykaios, who had been hurt, and did not cry out until Laurent told her to. Like a good slave. Damen would never not feel guilty for leaving her alone in the cold hallway.

“Rest,” he said and went to find Adrastus. “I require some slaves.”

“Yes, Exalted. The Prince of Vere has made that clear,” Adrastus said.

“I wish to see them first.”

Adrastus hesitated in the manner of a man trying to work up the courage to say no to his prince. “Exalted, these boys....they are very vulnerable.”

“You think I would allow mistreatment?”

“No, of course not! Please, I will explain. They are training still. They have been training for your specific use. And your brother. If they were to be brought to you now, without warning, it could deeply upset them.”

“You train boys for me?” Damen never used to care for slave boys. He still didn't really. It was different with men. He liked them for who they were not because they existed to please him. He relished the physicality of it. There had been a gladiator one time and if the bed wasn't marble they would have broken it. “For Kastor?”

There had been a slave, he remembered, and Laurent asleep two walls away. Had that been enough to make Adrustus train boys? Damen felt his skin grow hot.

“Just in case, Exalted. He is not the first. But he is very lovely.”

“How much longer?”

“I couldn't say. These matters are so delicate.”

“Make it quick,” Damen said, and left.

-

He tried very hard to cycle back to the way he was before the attack. Before Aimeric. He tried to see Laurent as he had then – a friend, a companion, someone his body didn't sing for.

Damen was disciplined. He was an army man. He was used to bowing to duty and he saw no greater duty than treating Laurent with all the respect and courtesy he deserved.

So he mostly managed to be normal. He ignored the goosebumps that sprang wild on his skin when Laurent's foot brushed his in the baths. He ignored the catch in his chest when Laurent smiled over the top of his book. He tried not to touch him any more or any less than he would have before the light around Laurent changed. He would not do anything slyly for his own gratification.

But Laurent kept coming to his rooms and Damen had to sternly tell himself that it was for Laurent's own protection.

They trained every day on the sawdust. Sometimes hard, and Laurent drew upon some deep-seeded fury and training was a challenge. Sometimes softer, playful, cantering, nearly dancing.

“Are you injured?” Damen asked, studiously observing Laurent's stance one day under the fading afternoon sun. It would be typical of him to hide some strain in order to keep up with Damen.

“No,” said Laurent. “You're not that good.”

“Yes, I am,” Damen replies.

“So am I,” Laurent said. “Don't let Nikandros hear you infer otherwise.” Laurent had excellent swordsmanship long before he left Vere. Everything he had learned in the academy under Nikandros's tutelage had basically been a bonus.

“Your form is off,” Damen said. “Why are you favouring your left?”

“I'm not.”

“You are.”

“That's just how I stand.”

Damen could not hide the annoyance on his face. “You have perfect posture, Laurent. If you're hurt --” He was standing right beside Laurent now and he ran his hands over his shoulder and neck, probing, to see if Laurent would reveal a weakness somewhere.

“I'm not hurt,” Laurent said. Damen saw his throat flex; felt his muscles tense. “I didn't realise --”

Gently, Damen nudged Laurent's shoulders back to the correct position. He moved his hands down Laurent's sweat-damp cotton training shirt, noted and discarded the fact his hands fit so neatly at Laurent's hips, and adjusted his stance. The whole time his hands were on Laurent, Damen found that he was unable to breathe. He wondered if Laurent could hear how loud his heart was beating.

“Like this,” Damen murmured. He had really intended to speak clearly. “Stand like this.”

Laurent succumbed to the guidance, shifted his hips, stood straighter, swallowed. Damen had to move.

It took him too long to move.

-

“You're planning another war against my uncle,” Laurent said, nonchalant, as he picked raisins from warm bread several nights after Damen had first broached the idea with his father. “Were you ever going to tell me? I won't write to him and spoil the surprise. Don't worry about that.”

“The first war was not against your uncle,” Damen said. “That was my father, and he challenged your father and your brother.”

“That's not an answer.”

“Yes, those are my plans.” Damen knocked the bread from Laurent's hands and ignored the outrage on his lovely face at the insult. “Stop. There's plain bread if you don't like raisins.”

“All right, nag,” Laurent said. He left the couch to examine the contents of the table. “You got licorice. It will turn your teeth black.”

“So will red wine. It's worth it,” Damen replied. Lately, he had been craving sugary things and longer hours in the training arena. He had not been interested in taking slaves and none of the people in, well, the world compared to Laurent or sparked any kind of attraction in him. He told himself the two things were not related. “There are jellies, too. The disgusting perfume ones you like.”

“They're not perfume. They're delicious.” Laurent returned with sugar-dusted jellies that Damen had requested from the market. “So...war.”

“Yes,” said Damen. “You know how volatile things are at the border. It was inevitable.”

“Nothing is inevitable. There are always choices.”

“This is my choice.”

“Why?” Laurent demanded.

“You know why.”

“Still smarting from your last defeat?”

“No,” said Damen. “It's not that.”

Laurent ate four jellies before he spoke again. “Thank you,” he said.

-

Theomedes was not adverse to the idea of war but the kyroi might be. Luckily, Theomedes had already invited them all for upcoming celebration games in his honour. It gave Damen time to work on his plans. He had a lot of plans. He could make it work. He could win the kyroi round. The only thing he couldn't do was perform alchemy. War was expensive. If they raised taxes much more, the kyroi would protest and protesting kyroi would not vote in their favour.

The accounts swam in front of Damen's eyes in the dim lamp light. The moon outside was high. Frustrated, Damen tossed the gold logs aside.

“I have a suggestion,” Laurent said, putting his book down onto Damen's bed. Since the attack, he behaved exactly the same as he had before. He came here every night. He had long outgrown the couch and waited, reading, until Damen drifted off to make the tiny leap from the couch to the bed. He was not a cuddler or one to flail about in his sleep. He was always gone in the morning.

“I'm all ears,” Damen said. “You're better at this stuff than me.” The fact that he should not be letting the Prince of Vere know about the financial state of Akielos did not give him pause.

“What if I was to make you a partner in my business like you suggested before.”

“I think,” Damen said. “That we already have a controversial partnership. My father wouldn't like it. Your uncle would retaliate.” Laurent nodded. It was surprising to Damen how little his face changed at mention of the uncle. But Laurent had a lot of practise at non-reaction. “I know why you are supporting this war effort but outside of these rooms it will look like you've betrayed your crown.”

“Enlighten me.”

“I'm just the dumb brute doing you dirty work. Disposing of your usurper. The throne will rescind to its rightful owner, after, and we will have Delpha. We will have peace.”

“Do you really think that?”

“No. But my brother will. Maybe the kyroi.” Damen turned on his side. So he could look at Laurent. He could see the sea. “Those slaves,” he said. “They are trained especially for me. They're very expensive.”

“I know. That's part of why I want them.”

“Diana, too. And Lykaios needs to come into my household. She's still jumpy, I hear.”

“Well she can't be that expensive now,” Laurent said. “But I suppose I am partly responsible. I'll buy them off you. That will go a long way towards funding your war effort.”

“I might just squander the gold on gambling and women.”

“That's a risk I'm willing to take.”

Damen sat up, sat forward. He searched Laurent's expression. “You hate slavery. You hate the thought of buying people.”

“There's something I hate more.” Laurent's mouth flickered briefly into a smile. “And you were giving them to me anyway.”

-